Chapter XIII - Cricklade

Where Thames Smooth Waters Glide - Cricklade,
Map: Cricklade

Tower and turret crown your height,
Thames plays babbling at your feet,
Ghosts of Druids glide by night
Up and down your stony street.

Light men laugh and hurry past,
Sentry of the Roman Way;
Shall you live to laugh the last,
Wise old Cricklade? you, or they?

CRICKLADE, as I have said, is the farthest limit of the voyage of the Thames, even if you manage to tug and carry and swear through so far. And who has measured the ultimate antiquity of this little town, the British Cerriglad, the stony country or ford, one of the chiefest jewels of the Stripling Thames? What British wanderers first settled here to plant their orchards and journey southward at the sacred times of Belteine to Avebury or Stonehenge, having first extinguished their hearth fires under awful penalties till the Druid high priest should allow their rekindling from his altar flames? "Good Lord, how spaciously might a learned pen walk in this argument! " The Druids burnt their sacred books when their colleges and sky roofed temples were desecrated by the new religion from the East, and we cannot answer. But within historical times we believe that St. Augustine looked upon its ancient roofs, that the great Alfred forded here about 878 during his wars with Guthrum; and that the Danes under Cnut sacked the town and cruelly harried the land around in 1016. "This year came King Cnut with a marine force of one hundred and sixty ships, and ealdorman Edric with him over the Thames at Cricklade," and so up into Warwickshire, burning and harrying "as their way is. " Does the Chronicle mean, or does it not, that they sailed up the River? Look at the banks and the channel, respectively deep and wide enough even now; and remember that they sailed up the Lea, to their lasting regret; and then consider the point. The town was unsuccessfully besieged later, in 1147, by Henry of Anjou, afterwards Henry II, in the course of some feeble attack of his upon the sovereignty of Stephen. In his time also did William de Dovre attack the town "villum," says the Gesta Stephani,"in loco delicioso"; and having reduced the country far and wide on both sides of the Thames, began most ferociously to rage against the king.

The present bridge is a level crossing of a single arch at the north end of the town, built in 1852, forty four miles from Folly Bridge. But it does not carry the Irmin Way across the Thames; the Way at some old time got obliterated at the bend north of the bridge, and a road was deflected from it due south through the town. You leave the direct southeast line of the old trail at this bend, and only pick it up again by taking the turn opposite the hospitable Vale Hotel, and striking it eastwards of the town at Calcutt. The bridge marks the beginning of the jurisdiction of the Thames Conservancy, which extends to Teddington weir.

[Fred, in Additions and Corrections, adds: There is no doubt, as I discovered only quite lately, that there existed in Cricklade, not only the well known priory, but also, as a distinct and appreciably distant building, a Hospital of St. John. The little map will display their respective positions. The present much altered house by the town bridge is part of the priory, probably the chapel; the building still adjoining, once used as a Baptist chapel, was perhaps the refectory. Its succession of priors is traceable from 1322 down to its suppression in 1535. Of the hospital there is nothing surviving but a length or two of ruinous wall, if even that; and an echo of its existence in the neighbouring Spital lane. Without attaching undue importance to the native tradition of an underground passage between the two houses, the legend at least corroborates their separate identities; though they doubtless were only two departments of one institution. The erection by the bridge is now subdivided into several dwellings, like the old house at Swinford. The hospital was re-established in 1412, the rector having to be presented for institution to the Bishop of Salisbury, and to promise him obedience. It was pulled down only about 1905 or 1906, to make room for the new police station, having fallen into much decrepitude, some of it partly burnt and the rest crowded with the poorest of Cricklade's poor. The precinct was entered from High Street through an ordinary street door, opening into a right of way through to Horse Fair Lane. On each side of the passage were in recent times three of the ancient little houses of the foundation; perhaps there were more originally. Each apparently had but two rooms, one above the other. "The Porch," near by, a similar scene which you enter through a similar door, still remains a wonderful relic of mediaeval Cricklade. There seems indeed to have been quite a series of these little lanes of houses giving off from the High Street through these commonplace street doors. How many times I have been in Cricklade and not seen, nor even been told of, these matters of which I now so meagrely write.

Was this bridge chapel originally only another hermitage, like those at Folly Bridge and New Bridge, developing into a priory which for the love of God should erect this hospital on the nearest available site "for broken down clergy and poor wayfarers"? Others may tell you I know not. But one thing I am assured of: that beneath the surface of this "dull" Cricklade still endures the imperishable warmth of the life of half-forgotten men, who in their day rode upon the newest wave of advancing time, as confident of being the ultimate miracle of creation as we little busy moderns are, and with equal right. Beneath what English village, if you will but search, will you not find a network of clues radiating back to all lives that were, and out to all the ends of the earth? And so you are impelled to a true view of human existence not as of myriads of separate lives, but of Life one and indivisible as the all pervading and eternal aether. ]

The remains of an old priory house stand close against it, incorporated into a large modern residence. It was probably only a Hospital of St. John, such another as at the old bridge at Lechlade, and was founded early in the reign of Henry III. Richard II bestowed the custody of it upon one Thomas Yokflete for life. A tall built-up pointed arch gives upon the road, in which two later windows have been pierced, one above the other. I do not suppose the priory originally stood so close to the road; Mr. Belloc, indeed, confirming what I have just said, recalls that Irmin Street once crossed the Thames half a mile below the present bridge, which circumstance would have removed it further from the priory than it now lies.

The Churn enters Thames about fifty yards below the bridge upon the left bank. And this is to start a long subject; for if it be allowed to replace sentiment and ancient custom with logic and scientific fact, this stream of the Churn should in barren justice be recognised as the real fount and origin of the Thames. And the poor shrunken rivulet now bearing that august name should enjoy it no longer. The Churn rises from two distinct well heads; one, the best known, being at Seven Springs, about three miles southwards out of Cheltenham; and the other, on a greater altitude, at Ullen Farm. The two brooks unite at Cubberley, and on the best evidence form thenceforth one continuous stream to the junction with the Thames and thence onward to the Nore. Now, Seven Springs is ten miles further from the Straits than Thames Head, and lies higher above sea level; and scientifically, therefore, there is no doubt that the Churn and its sources should be regarded as the real beginnings of Thames. Though others say the Windrush is the longest of all, and some the Ray; there is no end to it. But ancient tradition and sentiment continue to cherish Trewsbury Mead as his true fount and origin.

Cricklade has two beautiful churches: St. Sampson's crowning the hill with its splendid tower of about 1550, St. Mary's bejewelling the valley down by the Thames bridge. St. Sampson's was built in the time of the first Pointed builders, and displays fine later Perpendicular work. There are some curious and interesting carvings both inside and outside the tower; the four aces, shears and sickles, the Peveril's pepper garb and the Warwick bear and ragged staff; the latter over the south arch of the tower. The remains of a cross stand in the churchyard; and built into the north porch is some tenth century sculpture; perhaps an evidence of the existence of a church here from that date. At the restoration of the church in 1864 many old things were got rid of, as at Minster Lovel. One, they say, was a fine screen; and another was the original sanctus bell, long left lying about, and ultimately given by a workman to a stranger, and deposited by him in Devizes museum, as they relate. The beautiful flying buttress outside the Hungerford chapel was added by one of that family in 1569; perhaps Sir John, who died fourteen years later. Seen so frequently peering over the trees from the surrounding country, I have not been able to resist a thought that St. Sampson's looks out over the adjacent parishes a suspicion like fine old Sir Roger de Coverley, who would stand up in the middle of the sermon to count the congregation, and learn if any of his tenants were absent.

St. Mary's in the valley complements the grandeur of St. Sampson's with delicacy and charm, and adds the prestige of Norman work. I wonder where Mr. Hutton gets his conjecture that it was once dedicated to St. Nicholas, patron of the thievish tribe. The barbaresque Norman mouldings are rich on the chancel arch, surviving from about 1150. An unusual sight is the dark band of carved wood around the nave walls. There is a beautiful little chantry chapel, now turned to the use of an organ chamber; still a well of music.

[Fred, in Additions and Corrections, adds: St. Mary's possesses a fine black letter Bible, possibly of the second edition of the Authorised Version. ]

The porch is green with ivy; and the cross in the churchyard is in much better preservation than that by St. Sampson's. One of the two stood originally in the street of the town, but some said this, and some that; and I could never properly learn which it was until I read in Lewis that it was the St. Sampson cross, which they removed into the churchyard from the street when the old town hail by which it stood was taken down. This old "town house" stood in the centre of the street upon ten pillars. An inscription upon its southeast side bore the date of its erection: 1569; the date, you will notice, of the flying buttress. Robert Jenner, member of Parliament for Cricklade, was one of those still inclined towards the milder course with Charles I when it was debated to bring him to justice as the "chief delinquent" towards the close of the Civil War; and with his colleague Ashe, member for Westbury, got a reprimand from Cromwell for his tenderness. Jenner represented the town in the Long Parliament also; he built the almshouses here; and also planted, at Marston Meysey manor house, one of the earliest mulberry trees in the country; only cut down within living memory.

Cricklade, by James Thorne in his Rambles by Rivers, was set down as "dull to look at, dull to live in, and no less dull to talk about. " To the unseeing eye, indeed, and to the mind that only sensationalism can rouse, most of these little towns and villages are mere essential dulness. But to eyes alert for human interest, to minds that seek to connect that which is with that which was, to hearts that can be stirred by an aerial spire or a four square tower, and filled to overflowing with the beauty of the wooded hills, of the twilight hue of running water, of a willowed curve of the River or purple distances beheld from some upland bluff, to these there is nothing dull in the tiniest hamlet of the River valley.

Of this poor somnolent Cricklade a recent writer says: "There is no doubt but that it was the site of the first university ever established in England; and it is claimed that to this foundation Oxford herself owes her collegiate existence"; as Ireland, indeed, wrote, saying: "A Greek school was anciently founded here, or rather restored, by the learned archbishop of Canterbury, Theodorus, and afterwards translated to Oxford. "

(By way of digression may I add that Ireland thought the town remarkable only "for a very large parish church; for the mode by which they convey their dead for interment, which is by fastening the coffin in the front of a postchaise; and for the provision which, while they had the power, they were accustomed to make for the living; by a more high-priced, than constitutional, estimate of their borough franchises"? )

[Fred, in Additions and Corrections, adds: This hint of Ireland's refers to a somewhat serious state of affairs. On May 17th, 1782, a bill received the royal assent, reciting that "there was the most notorious bribery and corruption at the last election of burgesses for the borough of Cricklade, and that such bribery and corruption is likely to continue unless some means are taken to prevent the same. " The franchise was therefore extended to five neighbouring hundreds. But the evil, however diluted, only increased the more; for charges and petitions relating thereto continued to be made; in 1785 for example, when one hundred and thirty-six votes were objected to, in respect of fraudulent leases, or none at all, and for other reasons; and the "conduct of the returning officer was partial and illegal, whereby a colourable majority was obtained" for the successful candidates. As late as 1807 "Viscount Andover was a candidate for Cricklade, and had a majority of one hundred and twenty legal votes, but the returning officer, who is always the creature of the lord of the manor, admitted the fictitious voters to be polled, and determined the election against him. "]

I do not think there is ground for all the ridicule poured upon the tradition of the ancient seat of learning here. Theodorus certainly planted many in the south of England; and why not in Cricklade?

More! From documentary evidence it is discovered that because its people once succoured a queen in distress, a native of Cricklade may exhibit for sale without fee or licence in the streets of any city of England and Wales any such goods as are proper for merchandise. A royal charter is said to exist to this effect; and there is an amusing story of how it was turned to good use to stop an undesirable fair in the town (was it at the old "veäst"? ) by certain of the inhabitants combining to fill the site the fair usually occupied with stalls of their own produce.

Cricklade once contained a royal hunting box also, of which Charles II was the last monarch to make use. It is now a farmhouse, known as Abingdon Court; and said to contain what is traditionally known as a royal bedstead, interestingly connected with the queen in distress, which the same recent writer describes. His theme generally is the greater reliability to be placed upon the apparently unsought, spontaneous folklore of "the plain ignorant stupid agricultural labourer" and "the equally ignorant village tinker and mechanic" (not even the least of these adjectives is mine), than upon what you get from educated people, who sometimes dwell for a lifetime among fascinating traditions and never hear, or at least never notice, a word of them. "The smart up-to-date destructive critic" (I quote again) "often talks more nonsense than the ignorant local storytellers in the old Anglo-Saxon villages, where they still keep the 'yeast' by old reckoning, a fortnight behind the date given in the modern almanacs"; as indeed Jefferies noted. Prosecuting this idea he relates how, through a field labourer of Cricklade speaking of the water of a certain Lertoll Spring as being good for the healing of the eyes, the spring at Oak Barn, a couple of miles north of Cricklade, was identified as the one with whose water St. Augustine, a year before his death, cured the eyes of a blind man after his conference "at the oak" with the neighbouring British bishops. (Though truth compels me to add that some think Augustine's oak was against the Aust passage over the Severn and there are other claimants. ) The oak is no longer here; an ancient tree was felled about 1825, much against the then Lord St. Germans' wish; the farm buildings are all quite modern; but Oak Barn still exists; and the spring though covered in still supplies the adjacent cottagers, by one of whom I was told that its water retains its ancient medicinal reputation. In old days they sent even from Oxford to fetch it. The roots of the old felled tree have recently been identified in the stack yard. Verily, grant the dull aspect of this little Cricklade; but " dull to talk about"? Scarcely that!

Stow's description of Augustine's conference with the British ecclesiastics, which you may read in black letter in the British Museum, is worth condensing. Under the year 603 he relates: "About this time (saith Bede) Austine called together the Bishoppes and Doctors of the greatest province and neerest to him, which were the Brytaines, to commune with them, in a place which to this day [c. 1561] is called Augustine's Oak, being in the borders of the Viccians and West Saxons. But they rather preferred their own traditions before all other churches which throughout the world, agreed with Austine in Christ. Whereupon Austine fell to prayer, and also restored a blinde man to sight (saith Bede), which the Britains could not do," and so temporarily yielded to the great missionary. But only for a time. The ancient British Church, founded not from Rome but through Gaul from Ephesus, stubbornly preferred its own methods; and there is a pretty touch of related history at Burford in 682, when Aldhelm was commanded to endeavour to coerce the self-opinionated native clergy into conforming with the Roman observance of Easter. The bishops called together to the Oak to meet Augustine were seven in number: Hereford, Worcester, Bangor, Llandaff, St. Asaph, Llanbadarn, and Glamorgan.

There is an old monkish ghost story that when Robert, Bishop of Hereford, was in Cricklade on his way to London the spirit of Wulstan, the great Anglo-Saxon churchman, probably that one who was Bishop of Worcester, and who was then at the point of death, appeared to him and warned him that he too would shortly die.

Robert Canutus,"Robert of Cricklade," was a native here. He was prior of the Anglo Saxon monastery of St. Frideswide when it was granted to the Norman monks about 1158 by Adrian IV; and after super-intending the rebuilding of the church he became canon of Oxford. He is chiefly known by The Garland; a collection of extracts from Pliny, which he dedicated to Henry II.

At each end of the town is a Russian cannon, mounted upon its carriage; relics of the Crimean War. Two were granted, as the place returned two members to Parliament. The inhabitants are happy in having to pay easy rates for lighting and road repairs. The Waylands Estate, with an average annual income of about two hundred and fifty pounds, supplies most of the funds necessary for these purposes. They were used to rebuild the town bridge over Thames. This estate largely arises from a bequest of Walter, Lord Hungerford, in 1449 for an annual mass for the good of his soul, to be said in the Hungerford, or Our Lady, chapel of St. Sampson's. It was diverted in 1566 by order of the Lord Chancellor towards the maintenance and lighting of the roads. The property from which the funds are derived is situated in several parts of Cricklade and at Chelworth, and consists of orchards, closes, and cottages. The income is now paid over to the rural district and the county councils, in reduction of rates, except for an annual sum of fifty pounds for lighting, which is expended direct by the trustees. You will welcome this account as a rare instance of the honest use of these diverted chantry moneys.

Another interesting little charity was that devised in the tenth year of his reign by Charles I. The Forest of Braden then being in course of disafforestation, the king appointed that one hundred acres of its area were to go to the poor of Cricklade and Chelworth for ever. This Hundred Acres charity, as it is called, after several changes of method in disposal, is still in existence, in two hundred and thirty-five allotments held by sixty-two tenants, who pay a nominal rent. They hold until they give up or are removed by the trustees. The allotments are on the whole well kept, but not in every case. Small prizes for best results are provided annually by the charity. One more I will mention: another Hungerford charity, left by Sir Anthony and Dame Jane his wife in 1642, to provide annually fourteen "upper coats or garments of cloth," on the left sleeves of which were to be "set in red cloth the letters A. H. I. ! The clothes are still given away every Christmastide, but the marking with the initials has been discontinued.

Like the defunct school at Bampton, the free school provided for in 1651 by Robert Jenner (of whom I wrote a few pages back) was destined "only for the teaching of Latin scholars, and none other. " "His desire was that Maister Durham, who liveth with Mr. Hippesly, of Staunton, should be the first schoolmaster. " The school still stands, a substantial house next the churchyard, with a stone over the porch inscribed: "This school was erected and 20l. yearly settled on the master by the bounty of Robert Jenner, esq. A. D. 1652. " It was long used as a poorhouse, until about 1840; and then restored to its proper use; though they jonahed the Latin.

William Cobbett was in the town in 1821, and wrote in his Rural Rides with his usual savage indignation about what he saw, Writing at Cirencester one November day he says: "I slept at a dairy farmhouse at Hannington" the previous night. "I passed through that villainous hole Cricklade about 2 hours ago, and certainly a more rascally looking place I never set my eyes on. The labourers look very poor; dwellings little better than pigbeds, and their food not nearly equal to that of a pig. This Wiltshire is a horrible county. " Five years later he was back again, and hearing of the Thames he "rode through it, it not being above four or five yards wide, and not deeper than the knees of my horse. " Was it at the Eisey ford? He was in a better temper with Cricklade this time; though "while the poor creatures that raise the abundant wheat and barley and cheese and mutton and beef are living on potatoes, an accursed Canal comes kindly through the parish to convey all the good food to the tax-eaters in the Wen"; his genial and favourite epithet for London.

If some ancient coins have been rightly deciphered there was a moneyer in Cricklade in the time of Edward the Confessor.

And Leland was here: "Loke here wher Braden Water cumming out of Wileshir dooth go ynto Isis. " Did he mean the River Ray; the most considerable stream from the neighbourhood of the ancient Forest of Braden? It is a curious speculation why Leland should have said so little about Cricklade. His solitary note is: "Crekelade is in the farther Ripe of Isis, and stondeth in Wileshire. "

The Nonconformists of the little town perpetuate the ancient veäst about the twelfth of August with a great camp meeting and tea; though not now, as formerly, in the large north meadow: "Nar' Meäd," as the old generation called it. At the proper, original observances of this festival there were wrestling and racing and backsword encounters, and fights in earnest for personal grudges were often adjourned, they say, so that they might be enjoyed without suspicion under cover of the holiday. No doubt there was a certain not altogether laudable character about it all; and the Nonconformists, imitating the ancient Christians, seized upon the occasion and gradually turned it to their own more sober uses. They should however at least share the credit with the Reverend F. Dyson, long the vicar of St. Sampson's, from about 1850 onwards, a fine specimen of the old hunting parson of bygone days, and much beloved by all who knew him. He seems to have instituted donkey races and other innocent amusements on the Monday as an inducement to his parishioners to abstain from the Sunday veäst.

The old gabled Bear inn in the main street up till about thirty years ago had a completer sign displayed, the Bear and Ragged Staff: the Warwick touch. The adjacent manors of Calcutt and of Little Chelworth came into the Neville family in 1549, a century after the great earl's time.

Where Thames Smooth Waters Glide - Cricklade,
Map: Cricklade

Water Eaton